Last week, Harvard escaped from a bizarre and potentially damaging lawsuit after federal judge George A. O’Toole, Jr. threw out a request from a group representing victims of Iranian terrorist attacks to seize various Persian artifacts from Harvard. Still awaiting unpaid damages that a U.S. court ruled they were owed by the Iranian government, the group—under the leadership of Jenny Rubin—has recently set its sights on certain artifacts they believe to be the property of the Iranian government. Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, however, these artifacts are held in various collections such as the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and Harvard’s Peabody Museum, which acquired them long before the Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979.
And while Judge O’Toole’s ruling appears in part a straightforward and appropriate rejection of what seems a patently opportunistic attempt to benefit financially from both the tainted reputation of the Iranian regime and a warped view of history, it included a broader stance on the issue surrounding the ownership of formerly stolen artifacts—a controversy in which Harvard’s own position, in our view, warrants a re-evaluation.
“As a general matter,” O’Toole wrote, “establishing that a particular item was unlawfully exported or removed from Iran is not equivalent to showing that it now should be regarded as property of Iran subject to levy and execution.”
Of course, we cannot imagine any other appropriate response to such an attempt. After all, the argument of Rubin et al concerns an alleged—and obviously false—association between the Persian Empire and the belligerent Iranian Islamic “Republic” that currently exists within its former borders. But, even still, we worry that these words may set some sort of dangerous legal precedent that gives Western institutions such as Harvard the right to keep artifacts regardless of the circumstances under which they were acquired. While Harvard has a very good argument for keeping possession of the particular items concerned in the Rubin case, it’s troubling that this case may only lead to Western institutions keeping a tighter stranglehold over the rest of the world's stolen cultural heritage.
As an institution at the forefront of learning and education, Harvard's steady acquisition of numerous artifacts whose provenance spans both time and space falls into a tradition of prominent historical collections held by universities. While not quite the Ashmolean, our Sackler and Peabody Museums, amongst others, house many rare and notable artistic and historical materials. Many of these pieces, it must be said, were acquired around the turn of the last century, at the same time or soon after many of this country’s great international collections were assembled in museums and at other universities. It is of course no coincidence that the acquisition of many of these items from cultures such as Ancient Egypt, China, Greece, and the Islamic Middle East came during a period of unparalleled Western hegemony. And it is no secret that many of the Western world's most famous collections, such as the British Museum's storied Elgin Marbles, were effectively stolen from their territories of origin. Much of the finest Chinese porcelain that today adorns many museums and private homes was looted from Beijing's Old Summer Palace during the nineteenth century, coming as revenge for China's role in the Opium Wars and Boxer Rebellion.
A walk through any major museum—be it the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the British Museum in London, or the Louvre in Paris—would show that Harvard takes a backseat in the saga of Western museums proudly holding onto artifacts that others want back. Many of the circumstances in which these objects were taken do not amount to the trope of a civilizing mission that is so frequently used to justify Lord Elgin's seizing of the Elgin marbles: Look again, for instance, to the looting of the Forbidden City in the summer of 1900 by the Eight-Nation Alliance. And even when objects were taken from their areas of origin for the purposes of protecting them, why not follow Harvard's own example of returning the Lowell Bells to Moscow after 50 years of safeguarding them? For too long, museums in Western Europe and the United States have jealously clung to objects to which they have no underlying valid claim. As a rule, they should begin returning them to the many nations of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asian and others who now have the ample resources to take care of them.
We would not dispute that collections in the great Western museums have served as infinite sources of education, enjoyment, and awe for countless residents and tourists of these cities. There is even an argument to be made that more people across the world encounter and learn from these artifacts in a Western museum than would were they all returned to the sites of their creation. However, the purpose of a historical artifact is the rare insight it affords the world of the present into the world of the past, and the value of that insight depends upon a conversation between an object’s current home and the site of its creation. In moving forward, we urge Harvard to consider following the example of peer institutions like Yale, which, after a lawsuit of its own from the Peruvian government over certain Incan artifacts taken years before, is moving to create a jointly operated research center slated to open in October.
This question of artifacts stolen years ago in different times from national entities that no longer exist is indeed a complicated one. We can only hope that Harvard’s approach in the future will be one of active engagement with the cultures from which many of the artifacts in its museums were taken and that the Rubin case doesn’t set a precedent of stifling discourse between East and West.